Boxing's literary heroes are easy to spot. In America, AJ Liebling, Budd Schulberg, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates have all written not well but beautifully on the subject, as if galvanised by their experience of boxing to write out of their skins. In this country, there have been many fine fight writers, too, but only one Hugh McIlvanney, who stays inside his professional sportswriter's skin but does so with genuine literary style. McIlvanney's sentences are long, torquey, mobile. He circles his subject, moves in and out, cuts off the angles one by one. His writing is always alive to what's troublesome in boxing. Here's the point: all good writing about boxing is about trouble, one way or another; that's what makes it good.
In boxing, trouble comes from every angle. There is the trouble of what gives rise to boxing in the first place; the trouble of doing it; the trouble of its consequences to the boxer's body and mind; and there's the trouble of 'the boxing world' - boxing is magnetic to those who live by villainy and to those who are turned on by it. For those of us who only watch boxing - and then from a safe distance - there's the trouble of why we're doing it. Trouble is in boxing from the inside out. Fighting gives boxing writing its flesh and bone; trouble gives it its psychological substance. As the writer Tom Callahan memorably concluded, in a grim essay about Mike Tyson: "Perhaps the true horror is that there has always been a class poor enough for this, and that's why so many people avert their eyes. Why others have to watch is a perplexity, and why some have to cheer is personal."
Brendan Ingle's gym is situated inside an old church hall in Wincobank, Sheffield. It's called St Thomas's Club for Boys and Girls. This is where Herol Graham, Johnny Nelson and Prince Naseem Hamed (currently this country's most prominently brilliant fighter) have trained to tilt at world titles. At a less rarefied level, it's also the place local kids come to benefit from the wisdom of its gnomic proprietor. Geoffrey Beattie and I are here to watch.
Beattie is a professor of psychology at Manchester University, sometime journalist and writer of nine books. He has just published his first boxing book. It's entitled On the Ropes - Boxing as a Way of Life, and it ought not to be compared with the works of McIlvanney, Oates, Plimpton and Liebling. Indeed On the Ropes bears only nominal resemblance to conventional boxing literature, being less an account of what goes on in boxing itself than of its troublous hinterland. Beattie - a dedicated daily worker-out himself - begins his account in Ingle's gym, being clobbered for manhood's sake by Ingle hard nut Mick "The Bomb" Mills, and then spins concentrically outwards from Wincobank to the margins of the boxing world: those harsh regions without which boxing would not exist. In the book, we hang around in a glitzy niterie, a pawn shop, a Magistrates' court, a park in which, on Saturday lunchtimes, disputes of honour are resolved in the semi-formalised scramble that is bare-knuckle fighting. We go hare coursing and dog fighting. We listen to the voices of Ingle and his boxers; notably, the sad words of nearly-champ Herol Graham and the sensationalist, if uninvolving, rhetoric of Prince Naz. It's not a book about the triumphal ascent of its cover star but about the sorts and conditions that might have given rise to him in the first place.
Brendan Ingle is perched on the ring steps. He is telling us what's what in this tough world, and what it takes to survive in it. He is a natural raconteur. At our shoulders the ring bounces to the weight of six boxers, all of them sparring at once, circling, weaving, bumping, whacking away to the body, hissing, skin reddening. Some of the punches you feel through your feet. Every three minutes Ingle barks an instruction and the six re-organise into new configurations and start belting each other again. It is not possible to keep your eyes on their trainer. "Don't you feel," mutters Beattie rapidly, "a tension?" He says this with barely suppressed excitement.
For an academic, Beattie cuts an unconventional figure. He is conspicuously fit. His hair is sharply styled and he wears a blouson leather jacket over torso-hugging black polo neck. On disembarkation from his (G reg) grey BMW, he devotes several seconds to freeing his trouser cuffs from the tops of his Cuban heeled boots and to generally smoothing his lines. He rolls his shoulders continuously inside his clothes.
"Watching them sparring," he says later, in a shiny coffee bar in the biggest shopping mall in England, "it brings on this tension inside; makes you realise it could be you up there; brings you back to something you felt as a child."
Beattie is from Protestant north Belfast. His speech is torrential. "As adults we're all skillful at using language," he says rapidly. "We can be verbally cutting, reconstruct situations to our own advantage, do all sorts of stuff. But as a child you don't have those skills, and there's no attempt to reconstruct situations to your own advantage. Well, that's one of the reasons I like boxing. There's none of the verbal stuff. None of the covering up, none of the saying it and not doing it. With boxing, it's only doing it that sorts out whether you're a man or not. You're measuring something within the person."
Beattie's academic background in psycholinguistics is, as he puts it, "very Chomskian". "It's to do with the functional aspect of language. However, my practical work is to do with analysing the characteristics of behaviour as it's actually spoken."
His big thing is going out and listening to people talk, recording exactly what they say, and making observations on the basis of work done in the field rather than in the laboratory. He has recently published an academic paper based on first-hand accounts of terrorist violence. "Aspects of self-construction are critical to those accounts," he says.
On the Ropes, then, is a decidedly oral work. What it lacks in literary style it makes up for with close observation, partly of what people do, but predominantly of what they say and how they say it. And paradoxically, given Beattie's taste for boxing as a short-cut to the non-verbal privileges of childhood, it is those very aspects of verbal self-construction in the book - those moments when words not deeds are telling - that give it its peculiar substance. It is a book about how people talk their good fight.
Beattie's own self-construction is a towering thing buttressed by measurable achievement, moated with gurgling enthusiasm. He is keen to explain that despite being working class - "I grew up in a condemned slum with no wallpaper on the walls" - he went to a "posh direct-grant school" at which he was not only the cleverest boy but also the best fighter. He took a PhD from Trinity, Cambridge, won "the top prize in psychology" for his published academic work, has written his nine non-academic books "about aspects of contemporary British life", and gets upset if he misses a single day's mortification of his body in the gym or on the road.
He says he's not anxious about becoming middle-class so much as about "losing some of the stuff I had as a working-class guy, like the way I dress." Too much of being middle class, he says, has to do with projecting manners. He says, laughing, that what fills him with most horror is not bare-knuckle fighting but academic dinner parties and "that dinner party convention that you should make a slight contribution and then step back". He says that by comparison to that kind of ritual activity, the spontaneity, humour and physical vigour of the boxing gym is a joy. Presumably, he means that by comparison to the academic life, the life he pursues vicariously among the tough folk at Ingle's gym feels as real as his own childhood. Perhaps it brings his childhood nearer to him.
"I enjoy being out there," he says, blinking in the artificial light, then pauses, rolls his shoulders and giggles. "You can probably tell."
'On the Ropes - Boxing as a Way of Life' is published by Victor Gollancz.Reuse content